by Brad Bowyer
Remember what the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said as part of his swearing-in speech in 2004,
“We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate, so as to understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions, and open up new spaces”
So how does that reconcile with our space for civic discourse today, especially as evidence in the past week?
As most of us now know a highly contentious statement was recently made by the Prime Minister surrounding Vietnam’s actions regarding Cambodia in the ’70s and ’80s, not just once but multiple times on multiple platforms, and it has triggered a diplomatic incident and generated much-heated conversation and friction between our respective countries and within Singapore itself.
So far, rather than acknowledging a miscalculation or mistake may have been made, what we have witnessed is first silence and then a string of justifications to try and validate the contentious statement.
Beyond that, and even worse, we have seen an extreme polarization of positions accompanied by what I can only describe as hate being thrown at fellow Singaporeans, originating primarily from the side of the People’s Action Party, and now apparently endorsed by the Speaker of the Parliament and the national media.
Tan Chuan-Jin in his Facebook post is suggesting anyone questioning the PM or the PAP is doing so for nefarious purposes and may even be driven by foreign troublemakers and not because there are fair questions for concerned citizens to be asking surrounding the issue.
Adding to that his most ardent supporters in their comments are calling those questioning the government treacherous and traitors to the nation even calling out some individuals by name.
Rather than cautioning against this behavior, he appears to acknowledge and accept it, and this whole position has been echoed in the Straits Times and Today articles referencing his post put out on Friday evening.
I was one of those singled out by name on that questionable Facebook post’s thread.
Since I became involved in politics, I have weathered a steady string of disgusting online activity, but this incident has taken it to a whole new level.
I have seen many comments and threats including that I should variously be arrested, have my citizenship revoked, be thrown out of the country or put in jail all alongside a range of insults and other derogatory statements both on my posts related to the statements and in the various shares and sites covering it.
These actions, of what I can only describe as extremely hostile and irrational hate and fearmongering, should not be tolerated in any civilized society. Instead of any thought or addressing the message, it’s all about attacking the messenger.
Further, this behaviour should certainly never appear to be endorsed or driven by any competent authority or political representative under any circumstances.
Instead of debating a very important issue to “understand our problems and conceive fresh solutions” to find a resolution these actions are driving polarisation and whipping up dangerous and negative emotions that serve nobody, hurt many and are highly irresponsible indeed.
When you look at the original statement about Vietnam by the PM I think most people who have studied the period and events in question understands that nobody comes out smelling of roses.
There was a terrible atrocity being committed against the Cambodian people, but it was happening in a fluid and combative geopolitical environment, so everybody’s responses were coloured by their own agendas of the day and not just to the ongoing genocide.
There is no black and white and given the murky and dark place that it was, and the range of interpretations of who did what and why, it is a period that should surely be best left to individual soul searching and national lessons to be learned and certainly not to be lightly brought back to life in a very different time and regional political environment.
One lesson of which should be that while many believe in the doctrine of not directly interfering in other nation’s internal affairs there is a point where a matter of principle becomes one of Humanity. Indeed, without that fundamental what are we?
Given this background, I think it is very fair that we question why was the statement made and, especially where we have personal experience and connections in the affected countries, that we reach out to those friends and acquaintances who are impacted by it and apologize or mend fences where we feel it is necessary. Again, basic decency and humanity.
The birth and growth of ASEAN has had many contentious moments and to preserve its current level of development and cooperation some cans of worms really should not be opened. If they are, by accident or otherwise, they should be cleaned up as quickly as possible and not opened wider and made worse by taking rigid or confrontational stances instead of diplomatic ones recognising individual sensibilities.
We recently had the Prevention from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) bill passed and we have ongoing bills on hate speech and online bullying in the process all at a time where the government and its supporters are now seemingly engaged in the very acts these pieces of legislation are designed to address.
I believe we Singaporeans are a rational and highly educated people and not only should we hold ourselves to a high standard of decorum in our public and political space we should demand an even higher one from our elected representatives and those responsible for creating peace and security in our country and with the world at large.
I hope we can be far more diplomatic in our future relations with our neighbours, learn from our mistakes whether past, present or future, and clean up this situation with the speed and delicate understanding it deserves.
And at home I hope all those involved in this incident, especially in the PAP camp as the ones with the authority, will look long and hard at their actions, words and motivations before continuing down a path that does not bode well for a country that pledges itself as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.
This was first published on Brad Bowyer’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission.